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Dry Stack Walls: A Disappearing Piece of American History - 2002-03-05

Old rock walls, many dating to the 19th century, line roads and divide pasture land throughout the American mid-south states of Kentucky and Tennessee. But many of these stone structures, which were built without any mortar, are being torn down and, as Terri Smith reports, local activists fear the picturesque charm of their region will disappear with them.

George Patterson knows how to make dry-stack rock walls. It's a craft he learned in his native Scotland. Since moving to Nashville five years ago, he has found a niche as one of the few masons who practice this mortarless method of building rock walls. Like a house of cards that relies on perfect balance to remain standing, these walls some of which are 150 years old - consist of rocks sculpted and placed so that they stand solely due to weight and surface friction. On this breezy day, Mr. Patterson works on restoring a dry stack wall in a history-rich suburb of Nashville.

"It's a craft that's been going on throughout the world for hundreds of years, really. You know, some of the Incas were great builders of dry stack walls. It's a pity that people don't keep them up - that's the big thing," Mr. Patterson says.

Often referred to as "slave walls," most of the rock walls in middle Tennessee were actually built by Irish and Scottish immigrants in the 19th century. When masons built walls for plantation owners, they were probably assisted by slaves who gathered stones and helped with digging. Many of those slaves went on to become masons themselves after they were freed. Although no one knows exactly how many of these walls remain, historians and preservationists agree that a count needs to be made. Mary Alisons Haynie, a Doctor of Arts student at Middle Tennessee State University, says the walls were originally erected to divide property and contain animals.

"They have to be high enough that a horse won't jump over them or deep enough they are built on top of a foundation that goes into the ground so pigs wouldn't root through them. Beyond that there are significant differences. As you can see, the stone wall we're looking at is 2 layers deep, so they can come in different depths and different heights and the stones here are very thick and heavy and they're very much the same size throughout," Ms. Haynie explains.

Because they are such a central part of this region's traditional landscape, many Tennesseans feel if the walls disappear so will much of the state's charm.

"Rock walls, old hedgerows of trees, fence roads - these are integral parts of the tapestry of Tennessee. If we don't do things [to protect them], we will look like anywhere, USA," Laura Turner says.

Two years ago, activist Laura Turner helped shepherd a resolution through the state legislature, which recognized the historic value of rock walls. The resolution called on the Tennessee Historical Commission to identify stone walls worthy of preservation and to develop criteria for their protection. The commission was also asked to come up with standards for moving and rebuilding walls when saving them wasn't an option. But a resolution is not a law, so there are no Penalties for tearing down walls and no state resources to pay for a survey of the walls that are left.

About a year after the resolution passed, Ms. Turner began an effort to convert the document's sentiment into legislation to protect stone walls along public roads. She says the Tennessee Department of Transportation or T-DOT voiced its opposition.

"They assured us that they did not take down rock walls and that they were very careful about that and that we did not need this bill. A few months later, I got an emergency call, 'The wall on Hillsboro Road is being bulldozed down' and within three hours, TDOT took down a wall that experts say dates back to 1850," Ms. Turner says. That dramatic event inspired Senator Douglas Henry to step up to the plate again. He had sponsored the original resolution, and now encouraged the Tennessee Historical Commission to act on it to quickly draft standards for protecting Tennessee's rock walls. While the discussions of what those standards should be have been progressing smoothly, T-DOT's Assistant Chief Engineer Dennis Cook says everyone agrees the day to day use of the criteria will be the challenge.

"The criteria can't say no stone walls shall be removed. We can't live with that because of safety and other things. The criteria have to have some flexibility," Mr. Cook says.

For now, T-DOT has agreed that anytime road surveyors find a long stretch of well-preserved rock wall with historic value, the department will inform the community before proceeding.

Those who admire Tennessee's stone walls agree that until legislation is passed that mandates their protection, public pressure will be just as important in keeping these walls standing as the artfully crafted pressure between the rocks themselves.